Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Keemat (India, 1973)

In 1967, Ravikant Nagaich, the director of Keemat, directed Farz. One year later, its star, Dharmendra, headlined Ankhen. Both were among the first A list Bollywood films to capitalize on the James Bond craze, and audiences of the time were appropriately wowed by their combination of relatively fast paced action, pan-Asian locales, and sophisticated gadgetry.

By the time of Keemat’s release in 1973, the novelty of such films had probably worn off somewhat, but Keemat takes advantage of the era’s looser standards to provide racier content. Gone are the foreign terrorists of those previous films, replaced by the threat of sex trafficking, which is handled with as much good old exploitation movie verve as propriety would allow. A final “island of captive women” portion of the film includes every classic Women in Prison trope but for the shower scene. There’s the butch warden who gets inappropriately handsy with her charges (the sequence where she angrily tears at Rekha’s blouse must have been particularly shocking) and, when Rekha’s character attempt to stage a breakout, she does so with a Dolls Squad of lady prisoners dressed in tiny pink negligees.

But the most interesting thing about Keemat for me is that it was intended as a sequel to Farz, despite the fact that, when it came to casting, returning director Nagaich ended up with Ankhen’s Agent Sunil playing the role -- that of Gopal, Agent 116 -- played in the original by Jeetendra. Jeetendra, if not game, must have been unavailable, because he would later tread similar territory in 1985’s Bond 303, directed by Ravi Tandon. Of course, Ankhen was a career making turn for Dharmendra, the break of a wave that he was still riding, but Jeetendra was nonetheless still a viable star. The switch could also be due to Jeetendra being more of a leading man in the 1960s mold, with more of a reputation as a dancer suited to romances and musicals, while Dharmendra was more suited to playing the two-fisted men of action increasingly required by the 1970s more violent fare, of which Keemat is a fairly blunt exemplar.

As the film begins, Young women are disappearing from India’s villages and disadvantaged urban areas, lured from their meager circumstances by promises of fame and fortune, never to be seen again. In one instance, we see a sharply dressed slickster named Pedro (Ranjeet) pick a girl up and take her to a hippie bar, where he feeds her a sugar cube presumably laced with acid. Soon the inhibited lass is on stage singing lustily with the band of dirty hippies and dancing lasciviously. Pedro snaps pictures of the performance, which he later uses to pressure the mortified girl into going along with his demands. Later she is seen despondently being shuttled with a dozen or so other girls to a dock, where they all board a ferry to destinations unknown.

This situation having reached epidemic proportions, the head of the Secret Service (K.N. Singh) calls in one of his top agents, Gopal, Agent 116 (Dharmendra), who must be interrupted in the middle of a hot date to report for duty. Meanwhile, CBI Inspector Deshpande (Satyenda Kapoor) and his men are making inroads of their own into the investigation, and manage to intercept the aforementioned ferry in transit, only to find it empty once they board. Gopal makes a diving expedition at the site of the discovery, whereupon he finds the weighted bodies of the girls who had been onboard floating on the ocean floor, an eerie forest of corpses.

The investigation next reveals that a bar girl going by the name of Maria very closely matches the description of one of the missing girls, whose real name is Nanda (Padma Khanna). Gopal arranges a meeting with her at a restaurant and, as they dine, notices a lone woman at a nearby table spying on them. When he steps away momentarily, the woman comes over to the table and angrily confronts Nanda about her masquerade. This is Sudha (Rekha), Nanda’s sister. When he later takes Nanda back to her place, Gopal confronts her about her real identity. But just as she is launching into a teary confession, Pedro’s men arrive and violently cart her away, leaving Gopal to fight for his life against two chain wielding goons.

In the wake of Nanda’s abduction, Sudha makes herself a fixture in Gopal’s life and, after a series of attempts on the part of Pedro and his hideously scarred gunsels to rub Gopal out, determines that the only way to get to the bottom of things is to pose as a mark for the gang and let herself be captured. This leads to her eventually being herded onto that fateful ferry, which Gopal follows to a mysterious island far offshore where, in classic Ravikant Nagaich fashion, things start to get really twisted. Rekha and the other captives initially find themselves in a militarized prison camp staffed by butch female guards, but are later shuttled, via a long submarine tunnel, to a lavish lair deep beneath the island.

At that lair, we meet the real boss of the organization, a sadistic madman by the name of Shaktimaan (Prem Chopra), who amuses himself by trying to goad girls into trying to escape so that he can set his vicious dogs upon them. We also see that an auction is about to get under way, at which visiting decadents from a variety of non-South-Asian countries -- Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Africa, Europe, “Mr. Johnny from America” -- are going to bid for the pleasure of owning one or more of the captured girls. The auction ultimately involves the women being forced to display themselves in a musical pageant that is part Las Vegas and part Miss Universe, and concludes dramatically with Shaktimaan outing Gopal, who is in attendance disguised as an Arab Sheikh. Things then veer wildly into Flash Gordon territory as a frothing, Island of Doctor Moreau style beast-man is wheeled out in a cage for Gopal to fight to the death. Then we have a brief homage to The Most Dangerous Game as Shaktimaan lets Gopal and Sudha loose in the island’s jungle interior, giving them a sixty second head start before following with his dogs and armed soldiers. But with only Gopal’s superhuman wits and agility to depend upon, will our hero and heroine survive?

Now, my earlier ruminations on Dharmendra’s casting in Keemat were by no means meant to suggest that the characters of either Agent Sunil or Agent Gopal were so well developed that he might be inappropriate for the part. That said, Keemat does suffer from the portrayal of the then forty-ish Dharmendra as an overgrown boy that filmmakers of the time seemed so inextricably enamored of. Gopal is churlish with his superiors and, at times, unaccountably tongue tied with the stock spy movie vixens that he encounters. In addition, every new witness or informant he interviews is a new opportunity for the film to introduce a different comedic bumpkin or stooge, all of whom Gopal feels very comfortable telling to shut up or otherwise berating. I guess this is what was perceived as needed to make such an unpolished character seem suave and Connery-esque by comparison.

Other elements of Keemat’s casting, however, are spot on. We get a rare opportunity to see the flamboyant Ranjeet explicitly cast as a pimp, which allows him, for a change, to blend in with the film’s milieu, rather than appear like someone who has dropped down from another sartorial planet. Prem Chopra’s Shaktimaan is a ravening maniac, which, if you’re familiar with that actor’s work, allays any need for me to tell you just how pleasurable it is to watch him cut loose. Rekha, for her part, plays a character that moves through a lot of personas in the course of the film, yet manages to not surrender to either stock women-in-peril hysterics or preposterous kung fu girl voguing. Lastly, if Keemat needed a comic relief supporting character -- as it seemed sorely inevitable it would -- it’s a lucky thing that it’s Rajendra Nath, playing a buddy of Gopal’s named Rajendra Nath, who has a warmth that many such comedic players from the era were lacking, as well as little of their desperation and shrillness.

Overall, and aside from some somewhat jarring violence and grotesquerie, Keemat boasts that rote, generic quality that makes all Indian spy films at once so entertaining and unremarkable. We know that it is going to hit all the right beats, from the exotic henchmen to the exploding lair. In between, director Nagaich spices things up with his familiar brand of thrifty movie magic; Smallish or incomplete sets are rendered lavish through the use of glass mattes and models, we get some nifty animated gun sight wipes, and there is an ambitious miniature sequence in which a jeep tries to outrace a raging flood in a subterranean tunnel. Composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal also keep things lively, including toe-tapping item numbers for both Jayshree T. and Padma Khanna, as well as an adorable “drunk” song for Rekha -- “Bol Bol Darwaaza” -- whose character we’re meant to believe is so innocent that she could drink an entire tumbler of gin mistaking it for water. (My take away from this is that, when visiting India, the motto should be “DO drink the water”.) In short, the film is an enjoyable time waster, but probably won’t serve well those aspiring secret agents who are looking for practical tips.

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